Last night I witnessed the unbridled expression of a deep and soulful anger. It was raw and yet somehow tethered. I observed the beauty and power of it. I watched it with respect and awe.
I love her very much. Her kindness. Her sensitivity. Her lisp (that she is so ashamed of). She worries about her weight and carries the belief that she is the least intelligent one in her PhD cohort. I wanted so badly to point out the ways that she is such a lovely and brilliant human being but also knew that it would do nothing to help her. I sensed that what she needed was to feel the anger about the experiences and people who convinced her that she is unattractive and stupid. About a world that automatically assumes that a woman of color with an accent and a lisp is less than her white counterparts.
So instead of telling her that she was wonderful I looked at her and asked, “Where does all the anger go?” She looked at me, slightly taken aback by my question and then settled back into herself. It was as though she was jarred by what may have seemed like a provocative non sequitur and then quickly settled back in by placing her trust in me and in our history together. “I don’t know. I’m trying my hardest to find the anger and I can’t. I don’t think I feel anger.” She looked as if she had failed me by not being able to find it. I looked at her and said, “It’s okay that you can’t find it. I’ll hold it for you until you can, okay?” She nodded tearfully.
She entered the room last night her typically friendly self. Walking around the new office and expressing interest in the books (many of which she has read for school). Within minutes of sitting back down she began to cry. She told me that she felt like she was going crazy. She described a work load that would make packing mule buckle. She said she had the first panic attack of her life; that she is worried she is going crazy. I explained to her that I couldn’t do one-half of what she had described; that she may feel crazy but that the craziness resides in her situation and in her advisor. That was all it took…
She raised her voice and cursed for the first time. She pointed out the ways that she is expected to carry an extra workload as a bilingual woman of color and the lack of appreciation from her white professors. She yelled about the hypocrisy of “diversity”; the way that institutions believe they have done their job by hiring or accepting into their midst people of color without actually supporting them once they are there. She cursed her advisor for lacking empathy and humanity.
I asked her if she had any feelings about me canceling her last week when she was in the thick of this. She nodded. “Yes, I was irritated. I was looking at the session as a lifeline and it was the first time you failed me.” I nodded and told her that I would be pissed at me too. She reassured me that she understood; that it was merely an emotional reaction. I explained to her that I welcomed her anger and that she didn’t need to reassure me.
Though I’m sure there is a recency bias when I say this, I don’t believe I have ever seen someone vent so much anger while also staying so grounded. In that moment I saw her in her full glory. So much life force. So much soul. I gave her a wide berth of space while staying present. Afterward we explored how it was for her to do so and how it was for me to witness it. Then she was ready for an action plan.
There are moments with my clients where I am both pleased and perplexed at how they can outgrow me so quickly. What I witnessed was a person well on their way to knowing how to express and contain their anger; to knowing how to use the energy in it to create change. And if I am honest, the person who helped her get there (me) is now well behind her in that arena.
I know my strengths and weaknesses as a clinician. For the most part I don’t get too high or low about that (my clinical self is much better resourced than my day-to-day self). I don’t know what “theory” my interventions came from. Interpersonal? Psychodynamic? CBT? I honestly don’t know and it’s not far from the truth to say I don’t give a fuck. I just know that what I did was grounded in love and appreciation. And that, combined with a person who is open to receiving it, is what made whatever I did helpful.
A fellow clinician just sent me an email. They want to know how I work and what my theory is and what my specialties are so that they know who to refer to me. These are perfectly legitimate things to want to know. But I can’t respond right now. I have to wait. Because all I want to say right now is, “I don’t fucking know. I do my best to love my clients. Sometimes I do really well at that and sometimes I don’t. I’m not sure who I want to work with. It’s a feeling I get when I hear them on the phone or meet them. I know you, as an intern, probably don’t want to hear this but fifteen years into my career these sorts of questions bore me. I think they are good questions. You aren’t doing anything wrong by asking them. But they sound exhausting to answer. This work takes so much out of me that I don’t want to think about it academically anymore. I just want to occasionally clock my tiny victories, not think too much about my failures and get home.”